Sunday 21 July 2019

MacDermott nails it with 'oul' sod' nostalgia

Humour: Juggling With Turnips, Karl MacDermott, Eyewear Publishing, €13.99

Juggling with Turnips
Juggling with Turnips

Anne Cunningham

'There's a marvellous and irresponsible wit to these pieces… a stubborn refusal to take reality seriously." So writes Tommy Tiernan on the back cover of Karl MacDermott's new volume of comic vignettes. On the front cover there's a similar endorsement from Ardal O'Hanlon (Father Dougal) describing the book as "peculiarly Irish and true".

O'Hanlon has nailed it. This collection is very Irish, but then so is Father Ted. So is Moone Boy. Juggling With Turnips is similar to both in flavour - no pun intended - and excels in passages of 'oul' sod' nostalgia. "Carry On Doctor", for instance, describes a failed first date with Maeve, a med student living in a flat on Whitestrand Avenue. Armed with a bottle of Liebfraumilch stolen from the scullery at home, our 19-year-old hero sets off towards Maeve's flat. "Doubt momentarily enters my mind. Will she like Liebfraumilch? Maybe she's a wine snob. No it's OK. She's from Tuam." In another story, an entire life is played out against the perpetual soundtrack of Red Hurley Doing A Gig At The Red Cow Inn. "The past", he writes in an exquisitely crafted piece entitled 'Mother's Day', "is like Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."

His sense of place is immaculate. Mostly set in Ireland, even his characters' names are straight out of a medium-sized parish somewhere in the midlands. There's his beleaguered agent Sisyphus O'Shea, of SOS Management, an over-eager Louis Walsh type, but a lot more antsy and infinitely more foul-mouthed. There's Colm Killeen, botching an attempt to rob a smalltown shop. Things get tricky when the shopkeeper informs Colm that she knows him and also knows his aunt's family, the Horgans from outside of Kilbeggan. She suggests he become a hitman instead of a robber and Colm "prevaricates with Hamlet-like aplomb" in a coffee shop in Kilmallock, wondering if he should tell his friends - Pimple McNicol and Eejit Atkins - about his predicament.

A word-association piece is one of the real joys in this very funny book. In "Karl Visits his Psychoanalyst", the shrink decides to try some word association, starting with 'Tipperary'. First response is, unfortunately, 'A long way' but it takes off from there, where every county in the Republic (but curiously not the North) is followed by a fitting answer. Let's not mention the retort when the Royal County is mentioned, but given his replies for Monaghan, Cavan and Louth, it could be argued that Meath got off lightly.

MacDermott first made a name for himself with his one-man shows in the Edinburgh Festival in the early 1990s, a festival that launched the careers of Dylan Moran and Tommy Tiernan among others. In the latter part of the 1990s he was commissioned to script a radio sitcom for BBC4 - The Mahaffys - which he himself once described as "Ballykissangel meets The Simpsons", with Pauline McLynn playing the matriarch of a family from the obscure fictional town of Tubberbiggle. Back then if it was funny and it was Irish, it was practically obliged to be rural, parochial, highly dependent on farce and similar in setting to Father Ted.

Our younger writers have moved on somewhat with the likes of The Young Offenders and Derry Girls. But still we like to watch Bridget and Eamon! Part of Turnips' charm is its vivid tapestries, painting pictures of Dublin and London alongside Borris-on-Ossary, gliding from Boy George to Beckett and Proust without ever dropping a stitch. The writing is clever, self-deprecating in a kind of Irish-Catholic-Woody-Allen manner, and at times it's as tender as it is riotous.

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